A decaying oil tanker carrying 1.1 million barrels of oil off Yemen risks causing a major oil spill, the closure of a key port and disruption to a busy trade route, if immediate action is not taken. The United Nations (UN) has called for inspections and repairs of the tanker, which previously served as a floating export terminal.

The FSO Safer is located near the port of Hodeidah, a key entry point for humanitarian aid in Yemen, a country embroiled in a six-year civil war between the Iran-backed Houthi group and a Saudi Arabia-backed coalition supporting government forces.

Built in 1974, the ship has served as a floating export terminal and storage unit since arriving in Yemen in the late 1980s. In 2015, when the conflict in Yemen intensified and Houthi rebels took control of the nearby coastline, it was abandoned by its owner, a state-run oil company. For the past five years, the ship has been slowly corroding.

Time may have already run out to avoid environmental disaster. In late September, the Saudi ambassador to the UN, Abdallah Al-Mouallimi, wrote in a letter to the global organisation that an “oil spot” had been seen 50km west of the vessel, reports Reuters.

Al-Mouallimi reportedly wrote that the tanker “has reached a critical state of degradation, and that the situation is a serious threat to all Red Sea countries, particularly Yemen and Saudi Arabia”, adding “this dangerous situation must not be left unaddressed”.

The UN has been waiting for authorisation from the Houthi group to send experts to the Safer tanker to conduct a technical assessment and make any initial possible repairs. The Houthi group has rejected requests to inspect the tanker, raising concerns that the rebels may use it as leverage in negotiations.

In an August statement, UN secretary general António Guterres said that a potential oil slick in the Red Sea would not only “severely harm Red Sea ecosystems relied on by 30 million people across the region”, but would also force the nearby port to close for months and “cut off millions of people from access to food and other essential commodities”.

The scale of any leak from the tanker could prove disastrous. The UN has warned that a spill from the vessel could be four times worse than the 38,500-tonne Exxon Valdez spill off Alaska in 1989.


Mauritius spill

The fears over the size of a leak from Safer follow a much smaller spill from a ship off Mauritius in August. Even so, the oil spill from the Japanese-owned bulk-carrier MV Wakashio in an environmentally sensitive area is considered the worst in the history of the island nation, according to the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD).

The vessel – owned by Nagashiki Shipping Co and sailing under the Panamanian flag – was travelling from China to Brazil via a major shipping route when it grounded on a coral reef on July 25, close to a marine park and two internationally protected wetland sites. It remained stuck and started breaking apart nearly two weeks later in early August.

On August 7, the government of Mauritius declared a state of environmental emergency and called for international help.

The ship was not carrying any cargo and is reported to have had an estimated 3,800 tonnes of fuel oil along with diesel to power its engines. One of its oil tanks, containing about 1,000 tonnes of fuel oil, ruptured after it got stuck. The rest of the fuel was recovered, according to Nagashiki Shipping Co.

Tens of thousands of people have since protested in the Mauritian capital, Port Louis, criticising the government for not preventing the spill in the two weeks the vessel was grounded.

Small island developing states (SIDS) like Mauritius are particularly hurt by oil spills as they rely on the marine environment for key industries such as tourism and fishing.


Maritime laws on liability

UNCTAD reveals in a statement that the Mauritius spill also highlights the role of international legislation and the importance of encouraging all states to adopt the latest maritime rules.

Liability and compensation are critical in the aftermath of a spill, given the economic consequences and the costs of cleaning up the environment.

However, the international regime on liability and compensation for oil pollution damage caused by oil spills from tankers does not apply in the case of Mauritius, as the spill is not from an oil tanker.

This means that the maximum compensation for economic losses and costs of reinstatement of the environment is about US$65.17mn, states UNCTAD. If it were an oil tanker, the applicable International Oil Pollution Compensation Funds regime could have provided compensation of up to US$286mn.

“Whether the compensation available under the Bunkers Convention would be adequate to cover the costs and losses as well as the environmental damage in Mauritius remains to be seen,” reads the UNCTAD statement.

In September, the Japanese operator of the ship, Mitsui OSK Lines, pledged to pay at least US$9.4m to help restore areas affected by the spill.

“The owner of the ship takes primary legal responsibility, but we, as the charterer of the ship, have to bear a social responsibility and take proper measures, as this accident has significantly impacted the environment and people’s life in Mauritius,” Mitsui OSK president Junichiro Ikeda told a news conference.

Japan P&I Club, which provided insurance for the ship’s owner, said in an August statement that it is investigating the extent of its coverage of the vessel.